How to start an artisanal cheesemaking business

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It’s a scientific fact. Small-scale farmers can explore cheesemaking without breaking the bank. A Stellenbosch PhD graduate found that you’ll simply need a few cows, a little space and around R24 000.

While a number of barriers exist that may slow this industry down, a recent study concludes that artisanal cheesemaking “is an opportunity for African communities to fight malnutrition and meet the nutritional requirements of people in rural areas at low cost.”

Dr Faith Nyamakwere created a process that allows small holder farmers to make artisanal cheeses at the fraction of the cost. Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi. Dr Faith Nyamakwere created a process that allows small holder farmers to make artisanal cheeses at the fraction of the cost. Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi.
Dr Faith Nyamakwere created a process that allows small holder farmers to make artisanal cheeses at the fraction of the cost. Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi.

One of the researchers, Dr Faith Nyamakwere, developed a cheesemaking process specifically catered to small-scale farmers.

As part of her PhD studies, Nyamakwere implemented the process on four rural farms in the Eastern Cape, successfully proving that artisanal cheesemaking can be cost effective and open doors to better food security for rural communities.

When she worked out the costs of her process, Nyamakwere found that it amounted to about R24 000.

Do your own research

While these studies show that there is loads of potential for cheesemaking success amongst small-scale farmers, local cheese expert and author of “Cheeses of South Africa: Artisanal Producers & Their Cheeses”, Kobus Mulder, urges aspiring cheesemakers to do their investigation of the processes as thoroughly as they can.

“Cheese making is quite a romantic profession, but [aspiring cheesemakers] mustn’t be fooled. You need to know about the science behind cheese making.”

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Mulder says that a proper grounding in cheesemaking knowledge is incredibly important, and without it, agripreneurs end up wasting money because their product is unsellable or simply bad quality.

“Most people make cheese to earn some money from it. So, before you start up, make sure that you know enough about the cheese-making process and how to make cheese so you can earn some money. Don’t just start because Google says it’s so easy to make it. Cheese making is a food science, just like wine making.”

Choose the right cheese

Mulder says part of the aspiring cheesemaker’s research should include an investigation into the type of cheese you want to make.

He finds that often, new cheesemakers use a recipe they have seen somewhere, and end up making cheese they cannot sell.

“You need to know that the kind of cheese that you make, will sell, because cheese making is, after all, also a money-making issue. Cheese can be made with pots and pans in your kitchen, but good cheese is made with the right equipment, which is fit for the purpose.”

In line with the purpose of her study, Nyamakwere tailored her process to be better suited to small scale farmers. She chose cheeses that were easy to make and that can be successfully crafted when resources are limited. Her choices were Pecorino cheese, a hard cheese type which originates from Europe, as well as ricotta cheese, which is a soft by product.

Nyamakwere found that Pecorino-style cheese is something South African consumers know about, and it can be marketed as artisanal. The cheesemakers taking part in her projects observed that ricotta is similar in taste to ‘amasi’, a local dairy product indigenous to South Africa.

The right equipment

As with any farming-adjacent venture, space is needed for the operation to be successful. In the case of artisanal cheesemaking, an aging chamber is required. In a standard dairy venture, aging chambers are considered one of the most expensive aspects, with commercial chambers breaching the R300 000 mark.

Small scale farmers can make artisanal cheeses with around R24 000 using Dr Nyamakwere's guidelines. Photo: Zoe Schaeffer/Unsplash
Small scale farmers can make artisanal cheeses with around R24 000 using Dr Nyamakwere’s guidelines. Photo: Zoe Schaeffer/Unsplash

In Nyamakwere’s project, affordable equipment was used and repurposed to create a cost-effective aging chamber. Using a 3mx3m room, the aging chamber was fitted with wooden shelves that could hold up to 30 blocks of cheese at a time.

The room was also fitted with a humidifier, and an air conditioner, which along with the shelves, were bought at an online store. In total, the room cost less than R7 000 to set up.

The relatively low cost of this set up should be reassuring to potential cheesemakers as, according to Mulder, using inadequate equipment is a sure-fire way to end up disappointed.

“Cheesemaking is a process mainly of fermentation. If you don’t understand microbiology and chemistry of cheese making, and how to manage the fermentation process, you are wasting your time. And, if you don’t have the right equipment, you are giving yourself a lot of trouble and you will probably end up with poor quality cheese.”

Food safety comes first

Another aspect key to any food processing venture is food safety. Artisanal cheesemakers need to be hyper-aware of processing cheese hygienically, especially since cheesemaking involves bacteria. 

In Nyamakwere’s study, she emphasises the need to have strict hygiene protocols throughout the cheesemaking process. She explains that cheesemakers need be very well versed in the specific safety conventions that apply to cheesemaking, and that workers need to wear the proper protective clothing at all times. Protective clothing includes caps, aprons, boots, and face masks.

Mulder says that hygiene is a very important part of food processing in general, but is particularly important in the process of cheese making.

“Milk is an ideal food, not only for people but also for bacteria, good bacteria and bad bacteria, and cheese making is, to a large degree, the management of the good bacteria and the destruction or killing of the bad bacteria that you don’t want in your process. Hygiene keeps the bad ones out and the good ones you manage in such a way that they do, in the cheese making process, which you want them to do.”

In cheesemaking, says Mulder, hygiene is a scientific process on its own, one that needs to be managed excellently and stringently in order for the venture to be successful.

“It’s not about washing the equipment with your ordinary dishwashing liquid. Ordinary dishwashing liquid is designed just to remove some grease, but there are other washing liquids, things that we call detergents, degreasers and acids, that every cheese maker should have.”

Mulder admits that these solutions could add up to quite a bit, but insists that they are needed for a proper hygiene routine.

“[Also], if the solution is not at the right temperature, you are wasting your time. How you wash it, the equipment that you wash it with,- brushes, not cloths- the length that you wash the equipment [are a] important, otherwise you’re not really doing good hygiene.”

Finding help

To get support, Nyamakwere urges small scale farmers to join dairy societies, attend workshops and agricultural shows. Cheesemaking knowledge is not rare in South Africa, and small scale farmers stand to gain a lot of skills through exposure and mentorship.

Mulder recommends books over internet searches. “Take the time to read some good books, scientific books. I know it’s boring, but that’s where the knowledge lies. Not so much on Google.”

ALSO READ: From strawberry-picking to celebrated cheesemaker

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